Perhaps the one figure to have a name in Arthurian Legend as memorable as Arthur himself was Merlin. At various times he has been hailed as a prophet, a wizard, advisor and friend to Arthur, and an archetype of the Pre-Christian Celtic Sorcerer. But was he real?
In truth, it is impossible to say; especially if we are to look for the Merlin described in legend. But we do have a reference in the Annales Cambriae to someone name Merlin (or Myrddin) living in the 6th Century. The trouble is, if we are to accept a relative date of 495ish for the Battle of Mount Badon (where Arthur allegedly halted the Saxon advance) and 520 for the Battle of Camlann (where “Arthur and Medraut fell”), the Merlin that is mentioned would have been far too young to be the long-bearded sage and wizard described in the legends – at least while Arthur was still alive.
Myrddin Wyllt (the wild) (c. 520-590) was a bard at the court of Gwenddoleu ap Ceidio, a Brythonic, pagan king, whose kingdom was located in south-west Scotland near Hadrian’s Wall. The Annales Cambriae tell us that Myrddin fought alongside Gwenddelou at the Battle of Arfderydd in 573. But upon seeing his king and master killed during the battle, he went mad.
After the battle, it is said that Myrddin fled to the forest where he lived with the animals and developed the gift of prophecy. It is also believed by many scholars that it is this Myrddin that Geoffrey of Monmouth based his character of Merlin on.
When we think about it, though, it seems somewhat bizarre that Myrddin, a Scottish bard, should come to be directly connected to Arthur. What was the point? Why not just have him be a legend unto himself, separate from Arthur? Certainly, the exploits of each of them would have been sufficient for them to stand alone.
One possible explanation is that Arthur did have a bard or advisor whose qualities later came to be merged with those of Myrddin. Like all kings and warlords of the time, Arthur certainly would have had a bard to act as a sort of PR man who held an esteemed rank in his court. And it was quite common for kings and chieftains to have spiritual advisors such as priests or missionaries (many of whom resembled wild men as Merlin later did). Likewise, pagan kings would have hosted wizards, sorcerers, or pagan priests in lieu of their Christian counterparts. Often, these men would conduct a sort of spiritual warfare of their own against each other while their lords fought in the flesh. Rodney Castleden, author of King Arthur: The Truth Behind the Legend, has even suggested that Arthur would have been seen as doubly remarkable if he was a Christian King who had a pagan wizard in his entourage.
Was there someone in the oral traditions that was later identified and merged into the figure of Myrddin? We may never know. But it does beg the question how Myrddin Wyllt, a mad pagan prophet, came to be so strongly associated with a “Christian” King Arthur.
Ashley, Mike. A Brief History of King Arthur: The Man and the Legend Revealed. Running Pr, June 8 2010.
Castledon, Rodney. King Arthur: The Truth Behind the Legend. Routledge; 1 edition, May 11, 2003.
Morris, John. The Age of Arthur: A History of the British Isles from 350 to 650. Charles Scribner’s Sons, June 1973.
Snyder, Christopher. The World of King Arthur. Thames & Hudson; Reprint edition, February 1, 2011.